Motown had the Funk Brothers. Stax had the Memphis Horns. Muscle Shoals had the Swampers. Throughout 1960s Nashville R&B history, a musical partnership existed between James (a.k.a James Marshall, Jimmy, Jimi) Hendrix (b. 1942, d.1970) and Billy Cox (b.1941), with a later addition of singer Johnny Jones (b. 1936, d. 2009) – as members of The King Kasuals and later derivative bands. The combo frequently featured on a number of venue performances and local recordings; Jimi Hendrix’s early career in Nashville is perhaps one of the less documented periods of his life, but he claimed this is where he really learned to play guitar.
The history of the King Kasuals, or Casuals, is at times vague and characterised by fluid personnel and band name changes, but the origins lay with Hendrix and Cox in 1961-1962 when both were attached to the 101st Airborne at the Fort Campbell Army Base. Hendrix was from Seattle, and Cox from West Virginia. Along with fellow soldiers Gary Ferguson (drums) and Major Washington (sax) the band played as The Kasuals in servicemen clubs on the base and at the Pink Poodle Club in Clarksville, TN. Hendrix was not cut out for the military, often found himself on report for breaches of protocol, sleeping on duty and injuries. Within a year Hendrix and Cox were discharged from service and in an effort to look for work, they moved to Nashville. The pair took up an apartment above a beauty store on Jefferson Street.
The street could be considered the epicentre of black music in Nashville, long before ‘Music Row’ was established. Save some small pockets of redevelopment, the Jefferson Street area has sadly long since been bulldozed, cleared or left derelict. However fifty years ago it was a residential and lively entertainment area for the local black community with bars, diners, and around twenty nightclubs; and was the focal point for blues and R&B performers. The Del Morocco on 2417 Jefferson St. was a plush dinner club venue with a two hundred patron capacity, owned by Theodore “Uncle Teddy” Acklen. The newly formed King Kasuals were given a one year resident band contract there. The line-up at this point included Hendrix (lead guitar), Cox (bass guitar), Harry Batchelor (vocals), Alphonso “Baby Boo” Young (guitar), Buford Majors (saxophone), an unidentified drummer, and on occasion Raymond Belt (M.C., comedian and front-of-stage dancer). On weekends, The King Kasuals would play the Del Morocco and then gig through the rest of the week on the chitlin’ circuit within a few hundred miles radius of Nashville.
By 1963, Cox had changed the name of the band temporarily to Billy Cox and the Sandpipers, influenced by the name of a local night club. Hoss Allen had just left his sales post at Chess and had returned to Nashville to get more involved in production and promotion. He invited Cox along to cover some session work at the Starday-King studios for some local acts he potentially wanted to record. Cox brought along Hendrix. From then on, the pair were to appear on a number of recordings including Frank Howard and the Commanders’ “I’m So Glad” (also written by Cox); the “Billy Cox Band” were also behind Hal Hardy’s solo recording of The Neptunes’ “House Of Broken Hearts”.
Johnny Jones was next to join the group and was adopted as the band leader. Tennessee-born Jones moved to Memphis and Chicago as a youngster, where he learned his craft as a blues guitarist under the supervision of Junior Wells and Freddie King. By 1961 Jones had settled in Nashville and was already working as a session musician. As a performer, he was a member of The Imperial Seven (a.k.a. The Imperials), another band who were resident at a different Teddy Acklen club on Jefferson Street. This was where Johnny would first meet with Hendrix.
After a number of personnel changes within The Imperials and The King Kasuals, Jones, Hendrix and Cox came together as a performing group in their own right; supporting visiting acts in the area on the chitlin’ circuit and undertaking session work. During this time, vocalist Jimmy Church also joined the fold. Church had some performing and recording experience behind him already:
“I was born in Nashville and raised by my grandmother” says Jimmy Church. “There weren’t really any musical influences within the family, but I started singing at the age of three. Early musical influences were The Five Royales. In high school, I formed The Seniors – named so because we were all senior students except one. ‘Happy Jack’, real name Morgan Babb, was a DJ at WSOK – he liked us, saw us perform and ended up booking and recording us.”
The Seniors’ sole recording “Sloo Foot Soo” / “Why Did You Leave Me” was released in 1958. The following year Jimmy and friend Bobby Hebb paired up for The Hi-Fis “I’m So Lonely” / “My Dear” (Montel SJM 1005) recorded in Baton Rouge. It would be four years before Church would see his first solo recording as “James Church”, with the self-penned uptempo R&B number “Find A Job”, backed by the ballad “Fool No More” (Hickory 45-1194). The Hickory recording was made just prior to Hoss Allen’s Rogana Promotions being set up. Allen was his manager at this point.
Jimmy’s second solo effort was “The Hurt” (Okeh 7186), recorded in 1963 at the Owen Bradley studio (after Columbia had purchased the facility) on Music Row: “Freddie North is my first cousin. His mother and my father were sister and brother. I recorded the song because I liked the way Freddie did it. I paid for the session, Hoss pitched it around and Okeh took it.”
Within the next year or so Jimmy became the established vocalist for Johnny Jones’ band. Their reputation lead to their being hired as the backing band on the R&B TV shows Night Train and The !!!! Beat, with Jimmy Church doing everything from solo performances, providing backing to other artists, to percussion. Over a period of around three or four years the skills of Cox, Hendrix, Jones and Church would be employed on a variety of Nashville R&B and soul recordings. For Hendrix, 1964 to 1966 was a prolific, if wandering, period. Church reports that this was largely due to Hendrix’s association with the flamboyant Master of Ceremonies and singer Gorgeous George, who asked Hendrix to come with him on his chitlin’ circuit rounds. Hendrix was presented with the opportunity to back a number of acts including The Isley Brothers, Don Covey, The Tams, Little Richard and Curtis Knight and the Squires. Through this exploration of musical diversions Hendrix would finally meet Animals’ bass guitarist Chas Chandler and his manager during a visit to Greenwich Village, New York. A connection which ultimately lured him to the UK.
Around the time of the departure of Hendrix, the group changed name again, to Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, with Jimmy Church as the lead singer, and they re-commenced performing. Keyboardist and arranger Bob Wilson (of Detroit Ric-Tic fame) also joined forces with Johnny Jones and Billy Cox at one point to provide session work on recordings by John Richbourg’s Sound Stage 7 artists.
Jimmy Church continued solo outings with the relentless grind of “Right On Time”, released in 1965 (Southern Artists 2025). The song was the creation of the Freddie Waters, Skeet Alsup, Eddie Frierson, a.k.a The Hytones, who also appeared on the Southern Artists label courtesy of writer / manager / producer Bob Holmes.
Church’s first direct connection with John Richbourg would come in 1965-66 when they produced some worthy if unreleased material, including “Soul Shack”, “Faith In Me” and others, which would not surface until 2007 via the CD The Rich Records Story (SPV Blue 49742). Richbourg carried over the Rich contract to Sound Stage 7 label, which saw “Right On Time” re-released a year later (Sound Stage 7 SS45-2259), then again in the early 1970s when the Sound Plus imprint was used to release a mix of back catalogue numbers and new material. The ballad double sider “Twinkle” / “You’ve Got Me (In The Palm Of Your Hand)” (Sound Stage 7 SS45-2580) represented Jimmy’s final recordings for Sound Stage 7.
The King Casuals soon came to the attention of William Bell’s manager Henry Wynn, who headed the Supersonic Attractions booking agency out of Atlanta. The agency was contracted to supply the band and support artists for an upcoming tour headed by Jackie Wilson, The Impressions and Barbara Mason. Most of the support acts were not held within a recording contract at that time, so Bell and Wynn formed the Peachtree label as an outlet for these artists. Wynn also wanted Johnny Jones and his band to back othermajor artists. Church asked John Richbourg if he could be released from his Sound Stage 7 contract in order to join the band on the tour. He gave him his blessing, although the tour would involve tragedy, when Johnny Jones’ horn section and The Impressions’ rhythm section died in an automobile accident whilst on the road in the Carolinas.
At the time of the Peachtree signing in 1968, The King Casuals’ manager divided Jimmy and the rest of the band into two separate acts, both recording for the label at the same time. Jimmy Church’s frantic soul dancer “Thinking About The Good Times” and the ballad flip “Shadow Of Another Man’s Love” (Peachtree 101) was the initial 45 release for the label, produced by William Bell. Despite writing both tracks for the label, Jimmy reports he didn’t receive a cent. With tempo and rarity to boot, the top side received latter day acclaim on the UK northern soul scene via DJ Guy Hennigan at the Stafford Top of the World all-nighters.
In name at least, The King Casuals had one 45 release on the label: “Soul Poppin’ “/ “Blues For The Brothers” (Peachtree 102). Johnny Jones would also appear separately on “Mighty Low - Parts 1 and 2 (Peachtree P-126) and “Do Unto Others” / “Hong Kong Harlem” (Peachtree 131/132). “Purple Haze” was initially earmarked for a Peachtree release, but Bell and Wynn sought an opportunity for better national distribution. The song caught the attention of major label Brunswick. The group’s own soulful, almost funk rendition of “Purple Haze” with Johnny Jones on lead vocal went on to become a popular northern soul favourite, receiving 1976 re-releases in UK via Brunswick and, simultaneously, Cream, the Global Records imprint.
Jimi Hendrix of course took a different direction, the story of which (along with the tragic finale, aged twenty-seven) is now well documented. Johnny Jones performed until his own death in 2009. Billy Cox continued to play as bass with Jimi Hendrix after his meteoric rise to fame at Woodstock and until the passing of Hendrix. Now the owner of a blues and gospel themed video production company, Cox has co-authored and contributed to a number of biographies on Jimi Hendrix. Cox himself was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and he still tours and records to this day.
The Jimmy Church Revue was formed in the early 1970s, managed by South Eastern Attractions out of Birmingham, AL and proved to be a popular booking in various southern colleges. Today, Jimmy Church remains active in many ways. To the older African-American community he is regarded as a guardian of local R&B history. As organiser for the Tennessee Rhythm and Blues Society, Church co-ordinates regular events at Carole-Ann’s Café on Murfreesboro Pike in Nashville where artists from previous decades are invited to perform on stage; an acknowledgement of their contribution to the Nashville music scene. The Jimmy Church Band are a popular high profile event act, having recently performed in the presence of members of the British Royal family in Memphis and in England, and at several US Governor inaugural balls.
Copyright E. Mark Windle 2017. From the book "House of Broken Hearts" available from the new book section.